Thandika Mkandawire whose death has been announced in these pages will be remembered for generations to come for his scholarship and his humanity.
I had the privilege of associating with him through a small committee of diasporans who tried to engage the Elder Mutharika whose administration spluttered from one crisis to the next. Some of these engagements can be Googled.
But I also exchanged letters privately with him. Below is an email interview in which I sought information about the most critical point of his life: how he ended up in Sweden.
Thandika did his Form IV at Box 2. He told me he turned down the chance to go to Box 48 for Form VI. He wanted to be a journalist at the time and the Malawi News beckoned. Most people associate his name with Aleke Banda.
That’s partly true. But actually Thandika learned his craft from another Malawian, one of the greatest unsung heroes in journalism. Musosa Kazembe who was our mutual friend and who took his craft to UK and died in Swindon a few years back. Thandika adored Musosa. But that’s a story for another day.
Conversation with Thandika Mkandawire (TM)
by Louis Nthenda (LN) October 15, 2017
(Notes: OSU is Ohio State University. AAI is African American Institute: it granted hundreds of scholarships throughout Africa in the 1950s and 1960s as Africans prepared for independence. For example, Obama Senior went to Hawaii on AAI scholarship). LN (addressing TM):
Achimwene, It’s time to get the story from the horse’s mouth.
This is the summary I carry in my head, even though I suspect some big holes in it. E.g. instant citizenship. But what do I know? Can you give me a private briefing? This is not for nyasanet. I want facts I can carry in my head. The narrative I have is this: You went to OSU on those old AAI scholarships. I had my eye on them too in those days.
LN: You went to Colombia to attend an International Student Conference as OSU student delegate.
TM: Not true. I went to Ecuador for three months as a research assistant.
LN: The news reached HKB who declared the Conference a Communist front and Thandika a Communist.
TM: I din’t know about this communist interpretation of my Latin America sojourn. The Malawian Government declared a number of passports of colleagues not valid or refused to renew them. My problem with Malawi government starts almost immediately after the cabinet crisis. The Malawi Students Association in the USA had a newsletter, The Malawian, which I edited. Our position was there should be reconciliation and dialogue. We even sent a petition to that effect.I even wrote a personal letter to Aleke, who had been my boss. I received a letter saying he had made his choice and did not want to hear from me anymore.
The major crime I committed was to write a scathing editorial against the invasion by Party youths of the new University at Chichiri on academic freedom grounds.It was this that led Dr. Banda to call me a yelping intellectual puppy and basically promised trouble if I returned.
LN: His passport is immediately cancelled. How this kind of thing works, I do not know.(Note: the change to third person is in the original interview).
TM: The US government was informed that my passport was no longer valid because I had refused to return to Malawi.
LN: Thandika becomes instantly stateless.He cannot travel back to the US and instantly also becomes an illegal resident of Colombia.
TM: True except for “Colombia” It should be Ecuador. For one year my University and I tried to find if I could travel back to the USA. I never got a response
LN: The UN and its protocols for dealing with statelessness don’t enter into this narrative.Young Thandika starts visiting various embassies. The British et al don’t help. Then he visits the Swedish Embassy who listen sympathetically, offer him Swedish citizenship and issue him a Swedish passport. All in one package.
TM: The Swedish embassy did not offer me citizenship.They didn’t even give me refugee status.They advised me to apply to a Swedish university. So far as I was concerned the passport was valid. I should also have money for board as tuition was free. I had saved 12,000 US dollars over the 18 months. I was admitted to the University of Stockholm. That is how I ended up there. My initial plan was to try to go back to the USA from there. But I still hadn’t the passport resolved. The Swedes gave me an “Aliens Pass” for refugees.
LN: Upon which, Thandika is able to return to OSU to complete his studies and the rest is history.
TM: I never returned to OSU and haven’t been back there since. As times passed I found I liked Sweden. So I stayed, did a second Master’s degree and was given a teaching job 18 months later. The banality of my story is a reflection of the the unbearable banality of dictatorship. In between, my parents were subjected to threats, including being forced to sell 1000 MCP cards. My father paid for them but never sold them. My Mum was threatened with deportation to her home in Bulawayo.
LN: Thanks, Achimwene. I now have facts I can rely on. Our dictatorship was an octopus with far reaching tentacles.